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Interview: David Baker, author of VINTAGE

Vintage by David BakerHard for me to believe, but I’ve known my pal David Baker for twelve years. After we worked together for several years, our family broke bread together, and our children attended the same preschool, he and his family moved from Columbia, Missouri to the lovely Corvallis, Oregon, where he serves as Director of Productions at Oregon State University. I decided to forgive him for this, and we’ve stayed in touch and visited when we could. His first published novel, VINTAGE, has been called “A feast for all readers” in a starred review from Library Journal, the Seattle Times declared it “positively delightful,” and Booklist said, “Baker’s thriller offers entertainment and no little suspense for wine lovers.” It’s now available in paperback from Touchstone Books. We spoke recently about Vintage and other things.

SHORY: So first of all, are you corresponding with me from some exotic locale like you’ve been frequenting lately, like Tahiti or Saudi Arabia or someplace like that? If so we might need to conclude the interview right now, because that’s very annoying.

BAKER: Well, I did just return from Colombia. The one near the equator that’s spelled funny, not the one in Missouri. I was down there for a documentary film project on the decline of coral reefs for my day gig at Oregon State. It’s a sad story…nearly half of all the world’s reefs have disappeared in the past fifty years, mainly because we’re assholes. Pollution, corporate fishing, climate change. Locals are forced to resort to dynamite fishing to feed their families.

So we learned about this recently discovered reef at the mouth of Cartagena Bay, where a canal from the Magdalena River drains a lot of sediment and contaminates. This reef is a mystery…it shouldn’t be there. The water quality tells us that. Science tells us that. But despite all we know about reefs, it’s not only surviving, it’s thriving. It’s beautiful. Somehow these corals have evolved in this one place to survive the worst we can throw at it. The rest of the Caribbean has been decimated, upwards of eighty percent of the corals are gone in that one sea. Of course, we can’t just let it survive. Now the port authorities are planning to dredge a canal to allow the big Panamax freighters in, and it’s going right through this miraculous reef. So we were down there documenting it, plus the people who are working to try to study and maybe save it. It includes local fishermen who get most of their protein from it, Colombian, Mexican and US scientists, plus even a former guerrilla turned environmentalist. It’s a fascinating story, but it also breaks your heart.

SHORY: Must be nice to get to see so many places like that for your day job.

BAKER: Yes, I’m quite lucky to have opportunities to travel for both my straight work, and then my independent film and writing projects. Oregon State is a land-grant university. Land-grants are universities that have a special mission of informing the public. Traditionally that has meant educating the middle and lower classes and also helping small businesses and teaching farmers how to improve what they do, extension offices in every county, that sort of thing. Out here we believe what that mission means in the 21st Century includes outreach like films about the biggest issues facing our world. We want to make people understand what’s going on, the gravity of it. The fate of our oceans, and the decline of corals is certainly a big one. If they disappear, the entire ocean food web will collapse.

I used to think that my lone skill as an English major and then an MFA recipient…telling stories…was quite useless in the marketplace. But then I started to learn that other people in other disciplines–in this case, scientists–often aren’t very good at it, nor should they be. So sometimes they need to take a storyteller along to document the work that they do in a way that people will actually want to see it. So I now try to weasel my way into any opportunity to travel somewhere when this skill is needed. Sometimes I have to pay my own way, but in many cases I get to do it as part of my day job. Double bonus. It’s led me to some interesting places indeed. Next week I’m scheduled to film a whale pooping in the Pacific off of Oregon. I guess scientists can learn a lot from fresh whale poop. Should be a hit on YouTube.

SHORY: Wasn’t VINTAGE originally a screenplay? Can you talk a little about the process of converting a screenplay to a novel? What changed the most in the conversion?

David Baker

David Baker

BAKER: VINTAGE actually started as a novel, but then it stalled. It was bogged down in the very (necessarily) overwrought voice of its protagonist, Bruno. The first draft was first-person, and not much happened in terms of plot. So I switched to a screenplay format and by its nature, it had to start moving. Scripts are very action-oriented being a part of a visual medium. You have a certain framework you have to work with…90-100 pages, three-act structure, a series of reversals to keep the audience engaged. So that formula was helpful in forcing me to come up with a plot. That’s where all the noir elements came from. But by the end of the screenplay process, I felt that the character’s voice and personality was a little lost, so I went back to the novel form using the script as a sort of outline. This time I worked in the third person, though I kept some of Bruno’s first-person voice for the chapter introductions. It was very liberating to not have to worry about plot and just really be able to explore what this character was thinking and feeling through all of these scenes.

At Columbia College Chicago we used to do this semester-long fiction exercise called a “steeple chase,” where you’d take an abandoned story or novel and start from the beginning. One week the instructor would tell you to write in the first person. Then the next week she’d tell you to pick up where you left off but switch to third. Then she’d say to switch forms: a play, a newspaper article, a script, a letter, a journal entry, etc…all this until you reached the end. Switching forms gives you a new perspective on the story and some fresh legs for continuing. It’s a great exercise, and I think what I did with VINTAGE was an extension of this process.

SHORY: I read a version of that screenplay some years back. Seems like that early version was a bit more thriller-oriented than the eventual novel.

BAKER: Yeah, I think that’s both the advantage and limitation of the script format. You can’t go inside the character. All the interior work is done by the actors, cinematographers and director. In a script you can’t slip inside a character. So you have to focus on plot and physical action and dialogue…all of those are important. But it shows why novels are such a liberating form to work in. There are no rules. I’m glad I tried a draft as a screenplay, though. It helped me to focus on the elements of the story that weren’t working.

SHORY: Tell me a little about the research you did for this book. I know you’ve spent time in Europe, but have you actually been to Moldova? Each setting feels very well rendered.

BAKER: Thank you! Many of the settings were real places that I’ve been. Especially the town of Beaune, where I initially stopped with my wife quite by accident and then discovered wine. It’s in the heart of Burgundy, the most lovely wine country, and you can stroll out of town right into these vineyards and tiny hamlets where unassuming farmers in muddy boots and stained tee shirts make some of the most sought-after wines on the planet. That trip lit a spark and I came back trying to learn everything I could about wine, and that included working in commercial vineyards, planting grapes in my yard and making wine in the garage, not to mention a documentary I made in which I interviewed dozens of winemakers.

The book was also set largely in Chicago, which also provided grounding for me. And I think those places that I’ve been and know well anchored the story enough for me to write about places I haven’t been, like Moscow and Moldova. I have a minor in Russian history, so I know a fair bit about the region, but having never been there required a lot of additional research. I read articles about issues in Russian politics, travel books, watched documentaries and also used the Internet. I watched hours of Moldovan wedding videos on YouTube, particularly the dances, to help with the scene set there.

Research is important and fun, but I also find that it can bog you down and prevent you from writing. I avoid doing research for the first draft. For the first draft of anything I just wing it and try to fix inaccuracies and add details later on. And sometimes I’ll find that the stuff I just imagined was accurate. It’s a strange feeling to read about something you complete fabricated and find out that you’ve actually described something real quite well. It’s like a sort of writerly deja vu.

So research was very much a process thing in this book. I actually think that every book or script has its own process, and you need to spend some time figuring out what that is along the way, which is part of the challenge and also what makes it fun.

SHORY: The protagonist, Bruno Tannenbaum, bears more than a passing resemblance to another creation of yours I fondly recall, Brown Trout. Am I right that his roots can be traced back to that character?

BAKER: Ah, the old Brown Trout. Yes, that was a character from a fictional blog about a college professor, a sort of literary gourmand teaching at a small Midwestern university. That was in the early days, before social media, and a many people thought he was a real person. It was a strange experiment that eventually fizzled. But that was an exciting time for blogs…when people where just figuring them out, and there were creative anonymous fictional projects all over the place, some of which were really interesting. I’m thinking of one in particular featuring a fellow who called himself the Irate Savant, which I’m sure you might know a thing or two about. There was also Walter Kirn’s “Unbinding,” which was being serialized on Slate around that time.The Brown Trout blog experiment faded, but what I didn’t realize at the time was that I was riffing on variations of a character. But it wasn’t until I had a plot, an actual story with forward momentum that it all started to come together. I think it’s a good example of how nothing is wasted when it comes to writing. I experimented with character and form, following this fellow around and hoping that a novel would happen. Then a half dozen years later a similar character shows up when I started writing VINTAGE. Now I’m starting to learn that each story has its own process and form, and part of the storyteller’s challenge is discovering what that is.

SHORY: Did you find your hometown of Chicago easier to write about once you left?

BAKER: Absolutely. There are two points when I feel comfortable writing about a place: when I first get there, or long after I leave. But once I’m settled in, all of those magic little details that breathe life into a setting start to become routine and I don’t notice them anymore. Once you leave, though, certain things start to stand out in your memory. Maybe it’s nostalgia or the funny way that memory works, but a place suddenly becomes special again. It becomes alive. I’m working on a novel now about rural Missouri, where I lived eight years ago. I have the small town weekly newspaper delivered out here, and I keep the Department of Conservation’s natural events calendar on my wall, and it all seems so exotic even though I lived it for nearly a decade. Back when I lived in Missouri, I wrote a novel set in the Florida Keys, where I traveled often with my wife when we were younger.I know this is different for everyone. Some writers become really immersed in a region and it shows. I’m thinking of Brian Doyle, a Portland-based writer whose work is so imbued with this strange and wonderful place we call the Northwest. When I read him it’s like l’m rediscovering the region. If I end up staying here in Oregon I may never write about it, though. We’ll see.

SHORY: With experience now in the movie and publishing worlds under your belt, what advice would you give your younger naive self if you had the chance?

BAKER: Gosh, I don’t know. That’s a good question. I think I still need help. I still think there’s so much room to grow. For example, something that’s still quite mysterious to me about writing novels and making independent films is how anyone manages to make a living doing it. I know all to precious few who actually do. But I guess I would tell myself what I’d tell any young writer or writing student now that I’m no longer either of those. I’d say that you have to work very, very hard, for hours, months, years. And even then there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to earn a living, get published or even be very good. But I can promise that not a word is wasted. You can always get better if you push for it. Every draft can be rewritten. Any story can get better. And even if you can’t get specific film into a film festival or find an agent for a certain novel, there’s no outside force in the world that can prevent you from making or writing another one. Only you can determine that. You’re unstoppable, if you want to be. You don’t need anyone’s permission to write, or even to make a film now that the technology has lowered the cost of entry (though making a film still costs money while writing only takes your time). And the one thing I can promise is that, by taking that step, to start telling a story, you’ll be participating in one of the great human endeavors. Look at Native American legends. The Greek tragedies. Walk into a library. Scroll through your Netflix queue. Sheesh, it’s amazing. It’s been going on for thousands of years and it shows no signs of slowing down. Telling stories is the grand currency of our existence. If you tell a story, you’re doing someone a favor. And if you listen to someone else’s story, you’re probably doing them an even bigger favor. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that? As soon as we stop telling stories, we’re done as a species, as far as I’m concerned. So for that reason, I think it’s a great privilege to be wired in such a way that you want to even try doing it. What about you? What would you tell your younger self after years in the trenches?

SHORY: A lot of your creative life in the past 10 years has been devoted to writing about wine and winemaking. Think that trend continue in your future work?

BAKER: I think so. I think specializing has its benefits. It’s too early to say if this will be a topic or subject to which I’ll be confined, but food and wine are mysterious, wonderful things, and people like them. I’ve said before that every bottle of wine from a small vineyard or family winery tells a story on so many levels: what the weather was like the year it was made, the millions of years of geological history that shaped the soils in which the vines were grown, the cultural history of the region it’s from and finally the personal story of the winemakers themselves. It’s a rich subject. Even if it’s not the main subject, I’m sure it’ll always at least make a cameo. I could write and make films for the rest of my life and still not exhaust the story potential of food and wine. But, of course I’d love to try other things as well. I’m working on the documentary now about coral reefs, for example, and in my travels I’m gathering lots of ideas for fiction around these ecosystems.

SHORY: I can’t let you go without asking for wine recommendations. What have you discovered lately, especially for someone on a public employee budget?

There are good deals in Portuguese white wines and they’re getting easier to find. Vinho Verdes is a region to look for. Great table wines. If you’re looking for Burgundy style reds without the price tag, Cru Beaujolais made from Gamay grapes is something to keep an eye out for. Kind of trendy right now, but very interesting wines are coming out of that region.

And if there’s a small wine shop nearby, ask the owner what she’s excited about for less than twenty bucks. She’ll find something for you. That’s where I usually start.

SHORY: Finally, will the damn Chicago Bears ever win another Super Bowl?

BAKER: There’s always hope. My wife is the world’s biggest fan, so for her sake I hope it happens someday. My daughter, a born contrarian, is the last Jay Cutler fan on Planet Earth. Then there’s our local Oregon State Beavers, who face far greater odds of ever finding their way to a championship. But hey, if I can publish a book and earn a few decent reviews after trying for thirty-something years, it’s certainly possible. I wouldn’t rule anything out.

Learn more about VINTAGE and David Baker’s other work at http://vintagenovel.com.

Buy VINTAGE:

Review: THE ABSENT WOMAN by Marlene Lee

“I feel flat,” I tried to explain to my friend Jerry the day after I’d seen the old hotel. “I want adventure. I want to accomplish something. I want to live in a fishing village at the edge of the continent. Make mistakes and recover from them. Depend on myself. See what I can do.”

Jerry’s laugh was without amusement. “No one leaves their husband, their kids, their job because of flatness. That’s self-indulgent, Virginia. Adolescent. A luxury most of us cannot afford.”

This exchange encapsulates the tension running throughout Marlene Lee’s THE ABSENT WOMAN. Seeking a fulfillment she hasn’t found in her marriage, she leaves her husband and two boys and moves to Hilliard, a fishing village north of Seattle. She subleases an apartment in a largely empty, converted hotel from a woman who left Hilliard in a rush, and the woman’s belongings and reasons for leaving haunt Virginia as she tries to build a new life.

When she finds a piano in the hotel, she seeks out instruction, receiving it from an odd, disturbed woman named Twilah, with whom Virginia develops a tense, almost filial relationship. When Virginia begins seeing Twilah’s son Greg, the relationship becomes more contentious, even as Virginia’s compulsion to earn Twilah’s respect grows. It’s this quirky dynamic that draws the rest of THE ABSENT WOMAN into sharper focus and renders Virginia three-dimensional.

Lee’s dialogue is crisp. Her descriptions of Hilliard reveal its character without a heavy hand, with sustained fluorishes judiciously placed and effective:

Masts against the streaked sunset looked like stems and flags of musical notes. Pink-and-orange clouds behind the rigging moved to a fast tempo, and the halyards chimed. Soon the foghorn would begin blowing its low A.

Propaganda deals in generalities; art, the particular. THE ABSENT WOMAN succeeds as fiction, and art, precisely because Lee so ably examines the particulars of her characters. There are no caricatures, no easy answers. Virginia’s ex-husband, Ron, is no one-dimensional villain; he’s not a villain at all. His pain and exasperation are palpable. Her two boys are authentically confused, reserved, and resentful. Likewise, Virginia isn’t so much a hero as she is an individual full of foibles and uncertainties, unsure where the path she’s chosen will lead her.

Marlene Lee’s THE ABSENT WOMAN is published by Holland House Books and available at Amazon.com and other bookstores, including Get Lost Bookshop in Columbia, Mo. 

Interview: Steve Weddle, writer and editor of NEEDLE: A MAGAZINE OF NOIR

Steve Weddle grew up on the Louisiana/Arkansas line, holds an MFA in creative writing from Louisiana State University, and currently works for a newspaper group. He lives with his family in Virginia.

In 2009, Weddle and six crime fiction writers created DoSomeDamage, where he blogs weekly.

In 2010, Weddle and John Hornor Jacobs created Needle: A Magazine of Noir, one of the top journals for contemporary crime fiction.

His short fiction has appeared at Beat To A Pulp, Crime Factory, and A Twist of Noir and in The First Shift, Off the Record, Round Two, and D*cked anthologies.

I’ve known Steve since our LSU days, when he would hang out at my apartment with Chad Rohrbacher and a few others, play primitive versions of Madden Football, and make snide remarks about my (actually superior) music collection. I probably should have kicked him out more.

SHORY: Hey, aren’t you a poet?

WEDDLE: I have an MFA in poetry from LSU, yeah. That doesn’t make me a poet anymore than having a plumber’s license makes you a plumber. Um, maybe that’s not exactly right.

SHORY: So were you always interested in crime fiction?

WEDDLE: I don’t recall genre being that important when I was young. I’d hit the sci-fi corner of Waldenbooks, I suppose, but I don’t really remember all the shelves of crime fiction and romance and fantasy and all back then. There was the corner for sci-fi/fantasy and the wall of Literature and Fiction. The rest of the books were Chilton’s car books and maze-puzzles, I think.

I guess you could call Harry Harrison’s series of Jim DiGriz stories crime fiction, though they might be more properly categorized as sci-fi. That was a type of “crime fiction” I enjoyed.

When I was a teenager, reading stacks of paperbacks, we didn’t have all these crime fiction options, I don’t think. Sure, we had stacks of pulp novels and “true crime” stories, but I didn’t have any exposure to the same high quality crime fiction produced by folks such as Victor Gischler, Owen Laukkanen, Jay Stringer, Sophie Littlefield, Chris F. Holm, Hilary Davidson, Dan O’Shea and others. Could be that I’m just more aware of it now, but there does seem to have been more of a shift towards quality crime fiction, as opposed to “mystery” stories.

SHORY: What’s the story behind NEEDLE, and why can’t I read it online?

WEDDLE: A few years back, I was disappointed at the lack of a short story magazine for crime fiction. Sure, you have the Alfred Hitchcock and the Ellery Queen magazines, which are great at what they do. Crimespree Magazine had some stories in each issue and, as with all they do, they were great. And there were and are fantastic sites online for short crime fiction — Plots With Guns and Beat To A Pulp, just to name a couple. So I talked to a few people, including Jon Jordan at Crimespree, to have them talk me out of it. Instead, they were all encouraging and helpful. John Hornor Jacobs worked on the artistic design and the “feel” of NEEDLE. The magazine has been getting stronger each year, with more and more great talent included.

The whole idea is “ink on paper,” which is why you can’t read it online.

SHORY: You’ve used self publishing tools for Needle. What are your thoughts about self publishing?

WEDDLE: I think it’s a boatload of work, is what I think.

Let’s make a distinction here.

Needle is print-on-demand, which is something people have been using longer than they’ve used e-books. Years ago, you could go to the local copy place and have 20 copies of your dragon-slaying novel or your keys-to-productivity guide and sell them out of the back of your van or at the chamber of commerce meeting.

I decided to go this route with Needle because I couldn’t afford to have 1,000 copies printed and then try to hand-sell them later. If you want a copy, you order from the folks at Lulu and they mail it to you. Like ordering a fancy meal of whatever rich people eat. They make it for you when you order it. That’s what Needle is. We’re not the fried chicken at the gas station that they made all at once and sell one box at a time. At least in that printing aspect of things.

Self-publishing in terms of individuals is kinda awesome, isn’t it? Someone can take a story they’ve had in Needle, a story they’ve had in Crimespree, a story from Plots with Guns, and so on and collect them in one book. Then folks can download the book and read it for a buck or two. I think that’s pretty cool. Chris F. Holm, whose excellent “The Hitter” was in Needle, has two collections like this, both fantastic reads. Jedidiah Ayres has used this method. Jay Stringer. John Hornor Jacobs. Our pal Chad Rohrbacher. Tons of folks.

Self-publishing and print-on-demand and all these methods are great options for people to consider, depending on what they want.

SHORY: Your fiction has been published in a number of print anthologies, including THE FIRST SHIFT, BEAT TO A PULP, OFF THE RECORD, PROTECTORS, as well as online, but the unjust world has to this point denied us a published Steve Weddle novel, though I know you’ve got a couple of rocking ones. Can you describe COUNTRY HARDBALL?

WEDDLE: Well, it’s been referred to as a “devastatingly understated portrait of the American working class.” At least that’s what the pitch letter says.

It’s a novel-in-stories. A few of those stories have appeared in publications, already. “The Ravine” started it all. That story is in an anthology New Pulp Press put out called THE FIRST SHIFT. The stories take place in the Ark-La-Tex area where I grew up, the space between Shreveport and Magnolia. After over a decade spent in and out of juvenile detention, half-way houses, and jail, Roy Alison returns to his rural home town determined to do better, to be better. But what he finds is a working-class community devastated by the economic downturn—a town in which even the grocery store is cutting back on hours. A town in which a junior college baseball scholarship is a teenager’s best shot at a better life. A town without anything to hold on to but the past.

Roy finds himself caught up in a life he’s trying to avoid, and things don’t go well.

I was told the book is Daniel Woodrell meets DEER HUNTING WITH JESUS, which is obviously kinder than I deserve.

SHORY: Who are some of your biggest influences?

WEDDLE: My major influences are the photography of Dora Maar, the early work of Stravinsky, and the films Ingmar Bergman did in the 1950s, especially WILD STRAWBERRIES. Though, I must admit, I have a soft-spot for the acting in FANNY AND ALEXANDER.

SHORY: Er, okay. What’s the last great book you read?

WEDDLE: SENSE OF AN ENDING by Barnes and AMSTERDAM by McEwan were the two best books I read last year. OUT STEALING HORSES was the year before, I think, but I can’t stop blathering on about that.

In addition to those, I’d have to say that DEAD HARVEST from Chris F. Holm and THE PROFESSIONALS from Owen Laukkanen should be read by more people. Really fantastic books.
Joelle Charbonneau has a YA book called THE TESTING which my daughter read and loved. Looking forward to seeing that one come out. And Jay Stringer’s OLD GOLD and RUNAWAY TOWN. That’s shaping up to be a great series, if you like the crime fiction. Which you should.

SHORY: Seems like there are ten million “Top Ten Rules of Fiction Writing” lists on the Internets. Do you think there are any actual rules of writing to live by?

WEDDLE: Clearly, there’s a market for people who want to hear “Show, Don’t Tell” over and over again. Start in the middle. Have characters with depth. Etc. The thing is, most of the advice is worth considering. Not following blindly, of course, but considering. Read if you want. Ignore if you want. There’s a market for this type of writing, just like there’s a market for TWILIGHT fan-fiction and the thirty-ninth book in a detective series.

I’ve taught from Strunk and White and I’ve read and re-read writing books from Donald Maass (full disclosure: my wonderful agent works at DMLA.) If you can take something from a writing book, that’s great. If not, then don’t bother.

If you want to read some generic writing rules, you can Google them and read along for free. Whenever you come up with a rule, you’ll find a dozen great books that break that rule. But you’re not Faulkner. So keep that in mind. As Kurt Vonnegut and Elmore Leonard have said in various ways, don’t write the boring parts. The only rule I’d suggest following is this one: Don’t waste the reader’s time. If you’re writing to be read, then you’re sort of entering into a contract with the reader. You’re saying that the words you’ve spent years putting down are worth the reading. Someone is going to pick your book up instead of watching television, instead of taking the dog for a walk. Forget publishers and agents for a second. The reader is making an investment. For the next thirty minutes of her life, she is devoted to words you wrote. You’re taking a chunk out of her evening. Make sure your book is worth it. That’s the rule that seems to matter.

SHORY: When are you gonna get Madden on the Wii U so we can play each other like in the old days?

WEDDLE: I bought it months ago and have been practicing every day in preparation for handing you your ass. If you’re still taking the Eagles every game, that was probably overkill on my part.

SHORY: It was the Dolphins. The Dolphins. I haven’t played them since Marino retired. And you’re dead meat.

The Joy of Cutting

This is not a post about self-injurious behavior.

It’s about learning to love cutting words.

I started a fictional blog called THE IRATE SAVANT back in 2004. When I decided to turn it into a novel, I pulled out all the narrative material, maybe about half the blog in total, which gave me somewhere around 40,000 words.

Novels, I was told, needed to be between 70,000-100,000 words to be publishable. Fine. I needed to flesh out a lot of things anyway. So I added another 45,000 words, for a total of 85,000.

After a few months of querying, I put the book away. For four years. I knew it needed work, but I wasn’t sure what kind.

Then last December, I pulled the book out and read it for the first time in four years. Slept on it. Woke up and had an idea about how to fix.

And that’s when I discovered a love of cutting.

I had always been good at economy. Eliminating wordiness. But until I sat down that day back in December, I’d never known what a joy it can be to cut huge swaths out of a novel. Ten thousand words–gone at the press of a button. Five thousand here, another five thousand there.

The key was, the more I cut, the better the book became. Those 10,000 words were just taking up space. What I said in those 5,000 words had already been said better elsewhere.

It wasn’t all cutting. I combined scenes and characters, and those new scenes and characters, serving multiple functions now, came alive. And it wasn’t all big chunks either. Lots of extra words. A line of dialogue. Adverbs and adjectives, of course.

In the end I cut something like 55,000 words, adding about another 15,000, for a total of 50,000. That’s short for a novel. But it’s how long the story is. And the story, now called BEHOLD A LOVELY STRANGER, is ten times better for it.

Part of me wishes it were another way, that I didn’t have to write 80,000, then cut 40,000, then add another 45K, cut 55. That’s, let’s see . . . a lot of words. Maybe some other writers don’t have to write at least three words for every one they end up with that’s good. But I know I need that raw material from which to hone something good. And what’s more, I’ve finally started enjoying doing it.

Interview: Elva Maxine Beach, author of NEUROTICA

Reposting a 2009 interview I conducted with my great friend Elva Maxine Beach, author of Neurotica.

One reviewer had this to say about Elva Maxine Beach’s story cycle, NEUROTICA:

Beach has written a book that will have readers wanting to take their clothes off one minute, squirming with discomfort the next, then being struck by the sadness of humanity. Then wanting to strip again. She covers the many shades of sex, not just the obvious.

I can’t say it any better than that. Recently I caught up with my good friend and former LSU MFA cohort Maxine and asked her a few questions about the book, writing, and other things.

SHORY: So how did NEUROTICA come about?


BEACH: After getting a pointless M.F.A. in Creative Writing, I farted around with a couple of short stories and got nowhere. I was blocked and frustrated and kept telling myself, “I made a big mistake. I wasted a lot of time and money on my stupid degree.” MFA programs kill the creative spirit, plus it’s not like I had a whole lot of time to write; I was working full-time during the day and was an adjunct professor at night, and was exhausted by day’s end. That changed when my full-time job turned into a nightmare. I quit the job, was broke, had nothing left to do but teach a class here and there and write my stories. Nobody was reading my work and nobody cared, so I was free to write what I wanted to write about.

I write about sex, because sex has always been my primary interest. I kid you not. Always. Since I was a kid. I used to order books on sex through the mail, hide them from my parents (who would not have approved), and read them in secret. I had books on how women achieve orgasm, Shere Hite’s report on male sexuality, and a book on sensual massage. Yep. I was reading this stuff before I was even 16 years old. Anyway, my interest is really in how women deal with the mixed signals we’re fed about our sexuality. The signals make most of us crazy, insecure, prudes or sluts. We get stuck in a Madonna-whore paradigm, and this conflict interests me, so I wrote all these stories and put them together and made a book. NEUROTICA.

SHORY: Yeah, some people claim to be interested in comics, or fancy coffee, or politics, or NASCAR, but that’s just to have something to do when they’re not having sex, right? Or is that just men? But that’s one of the points of your book, isn’t it? Hey, I’m occasionally perceptive.

BEACH: Men are so full of themselves, aren’t they? Wow! You think you’re being perceptive because you had a little itty bitty epiphany that perhaps women like sex, too. Awww…if I were in the same room as you, I’d pat your little head. But wait. You don’t like to be touched. Sorry.

SHORY: I’m glad you remember that. Now your publisher, New Belleville, a new press out of Austin, is very supportive and really pushing your book, whereas many other publishers both big and small just can’t seem to be bothered, unless you’re Stephen King or some pretty young thing who graduated from Sarah Lawrence College. Wait, you didn’t graduate from Sarah Lawrence, did you?

BEACH: No, unfortunately, I was born into a working-class family and thus did not benefit from an entitled life. No fancy shmancy Sarah Lawrence for me. But are you suggesting I’m pretty and young? Sweet!

SHORY: So, your publisher . . .

BEACH: Yeah, my publisher. He’s a very cool guy. He’s French actually. And, sometimes he lets his beard get really long. And he has a dog named Brutus. Until last year, I had a cat named Bluto. Brutus and Bluto are basically the same character from the Popeye the Sailor Man cartoons, right. So, maybe that’s why my publisher supports me as much as he does. We’re simpatico.

SHORY: I’ve never known you to have problem saying what you think. But was it hard to write a book like this? I can’t bear to write a non-ironic sex scene.

BEACH: I love saying the words “sucking and fucking” because those words make me giggle, and you know me, I love to laugh. So, no, it wasn’t hard to write non-ironic sex scenes because sex makes me laugh, and in its very nature is ironic, don’t you think? We meet someone we’re attracted to, want to jump his or her bones, expect fireworks and violins, and what we get is big bellies, hairy backs, stretch marks and awkwardness. That’s funny. So is the word kinky.

Did I ever tell you about this time two years ago when I sprained my ankle while having sex for this first time with this dude I met online? That’s right. It’s not like we were doing anything out of the ordinary, just your standard suck and fuck, and boom, just like that, I sprained my ankle. We had to stop what we were doing, and the dude was sweet (we’re still friends) and put ice on my ankle and nursed me through the night. But after that he was scared to have sex with me. It was humiliating. The only way it could have been worse is if I had sprained my ankle while masturbating.

SHORY: Tell me about your recent performance. Once again I have to apologize for not attending, but I’m a boring, miserable old bastard who doesn’t go out during the week.

BEACH: I think you’re referring to the performance I did at The Way Out Club on December 18. The Way Out Club is this groovy, “in the hood,” club tailor made for freaks and punks and outsiders. I’m friends with the owners, Bob and Sherri (super cool people), and so when I moved back to The Lou I started reconnecting with old friends (I lived here in the 80’s), and the next thing you know we’re putting on this crazy performance piece with burlesque dancers and musicians.

SHORY: And a gimp?

BEACH: I wanted a gimp for the show. So I went to this sex shop and I asked the owner if he knew of a gimp who is into public humiliation because I’m putting on a show in December. And the owner gave me a name and number of a man who would probably be willing to “model,” but after initially agreeing to perform, the pathetic little son of a bitch backed out. Finding a gimp is not as easy as I’d originally thought it would be. Where oh where have the sissy men gone?

So this dude I dated went ahead and let me whip him on stage since I was whining about not being able to find a gimp.

The show was a surprising success considering there was an ice storm that night. The DT’s played with special guest Suzie Gilbert. We had three burlesque girls dance, too. I was the only reader.

I read three poems “Sissy,” “Bend Over Boyfriend,” and “Cold Bedsheets.” None of which are in Neurotica. Then I read the short stories “He’s Just One More” and “Can I Get a Hallelujah?”

I whipped my pet on stage and made him kneel while I read “Sissy,” an abusive hateful love poem about falling for a mommy’s boy. After releasing my pet, I read “Bend Over Boyfriend” which was dedicated to one of the bar owners, Bob.

It was raucous and after the intermission was a bit out of control. The audience was wound up. Men jumped on stage to be whipped, one audience member humped the burlesque girls’ teddy bear. Shear insanity. I quieted the crowd down with threats and teases and finished off with a short story.

The DT’s and Susie Gilbert backed up the mayhem with loveliness and beauty.

Here’s some video.

SHORY: Clearly I missed out. How about your students? What do they think about your writing, or are they as oblivious to their professors’ work as you and I were?

BEACH: I try to keep my perversity out of the classroom. I guess you could say I have two conflicting personas. The good citizen professor and the debauched erotica writer (although my work is more literary than erotic). But, once my students stumble upon my work, they’re usually intrigued. While teaching at Austin Community College I discovered, through the grapevine, that students referred to me as the sex writer teacher. Ah ha! No wonder my classes filled each semester and my students insisted on interpreting everything we read in sexual terms. Most of my students are oblivious, though. To most I’m just the English teacher who tortures them with homework and reading and who insists they think their own thoughts. How dare I?

SHORY: Not only were you frank about sexuality but you also laid bare your protagonist’s psyche. How hard was it to get both the mental and physical onto the page?

BEACH: Tough. Really tough. While I was working on the book, I had a creative writing student who was gay, but who preferred to keep this secret from his classmates. Well, his stories were suffering as a result. His work fell just short of good and I suspected this had to do with his unwillingness to deal with truth, both in himself and on the page. I kept at this student, lecturing, advising, prompting, until I had a small epiphany. How could I teach my students the importance of emotional truth unless I, too, struggled with it? So, I changed my approach to my own work. It took courage, but I splayed myself open and then bled on the page — it was a fictional bleeding, but emotional truth is emotional truth.

You call it the mental (the neurosis) and the physical (the erotic), but what is happening in the work is an emotional glue between the two. You know, mind, body AND spirit (in this case emotion).

Yep.

Or maybe I’m just bullshitting and had no awareness of what I was doing. Maybe everything just came together as it should without thinking.

Hmmmm….

SHORY: So where did you turn for inspiration during the writing?

BEACH: Basically, I was writing to keep my sanity. I was broke, underemployed, alone, and very very insecure, and making art out of my life was my savior. Otherwise, I think I may have ended up in a mental institution. Seriously. I’m not kidding.

As far as looking to other writers for inspiration, well, actually, I looked to a painter — Frida Kahlo. Her life journey and her strength and her incredible personal art gives me courage to examine myself, my life, and mold it into art. Kahlo was courageous. I want to be courageous, too. But it’s scary putting one’s self out there. And thrilling. And funny. Sometimes, I feel like a trickster.

I found other writers helpful. Anaïs Nin, Charles Bukowski, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence all write about the erotic and/or the visceral. They definitely influenced me. Frida Kahlo inspired me and her story gave me the courage to write deeply personal stuff. The writers, well, they teach me how to write.

My favorite writers are Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. I just finished reading Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which I’ve read about ten times now. And, I also just finished Cormac McCarthy’s latest novel The Road.

You know, I read too much. Buddha suggested we read less and spend more time contemplating what we have read.

SHORY: You already had some choice words to say about M.F.A. programs, but did your LSU experience help you at all? Did you find yourself using techniques you learned there, and/or fighting against some of the training? Personally, I have a lot of voices in my head from both LSU and Auburn, some of them helpful, some very unhelpful, and it’s a constant struggle to deal with them.

BEACH: I don’t regret pursuing my M.F.A., because I did learn more about craft and form, I met some very cool people (like you!), and with my degree I can teach college-level writing, but the M.F.A. program did mess with my head.

For about three years after I finished graduate school I couldn’t write. Not a lick. The workshops had strengthened my inner critic to the point I felt like a hack and failure every single time I attempted to write a poem or a story. And, no matter how hard I tried to shut her out, the inner critic refused to shut the fuck up.

It took about three years after finishing the program before I realized that I didn’t give a shit about writing “literature” or pleasing the academics. I also had to accept that I may never ever make a living writing stories and poems, that no one really cares, that there are too many of us hacks out there to begin with, and if I want to write, so be it. I would write. Without expectations. Without trying to be brilliant. I like to write, I was losing my mind because my life was falling apart, and writing was my refuge. So I wrote. All that crap we learned in graduate school was finally digested and purged. The good stuff nourished, the bad stuff was flushed.

Graduate school is like eating meat: meat takes forever to digest and so it basically rots inside your bowels for a long long time before you get the usable stuff. Then you take a nice long shit. And you’re good to go.

SHORY: Though you have a lot to say about female (and male) sexuality, I didn’t see the book as an angry screed; your protagonist is hardly an all-innocent victim, and her boyfriends/sexual partners, while often not the best people in the world, don’t come across as two-dimensional. Who do you see as the primary audience for Neurotica? What would you want men and women to take away from it?

BEACH: Yeah, if my narrator had come off as a whiny victim gal, I would have considered my work a failure. And, I didn’t want the dudes in the stories to come off as bad guys — just real, regular dudes, all with their own hang ups and obstacles. Really, the stories are all about the search for love in all of its insanity and insecurity and fear. Contemporary dating, hanging, playing is convoluted and honestly, people do their best with what they have, while trying to protect their intrigrity, and I wanted to convey this messy aspect of human nature. My original audience was women, but men seem to be digging the book, too, and not just because there’s lots of unabashed sex. I think men are appreciative that this book is a woman’s perspective that doesn’t practice good ole fashioned ball busting.

You know, in my real life, I love my lovers. I love the men who come in and out of my life and often feel blessed to have both amazing male friends and lovers. A friend of mine told me recently that she thinks it’s my overflowing capacity for love that makes me so cool. I try to hide the fact that I’m a huge softie, but I am. And, because I genuinely love the men in my life, I want to respect that, not bash them.

SHORY: Where do you go next with your writing?

BEACH: I have a couple of ideas — but basically, I want to keep writing poems and stories. My goal is to do more performance. I’ve always loved theater and since I’m a terrible actor but a damn good reader, I like combining readings with performance. Sort of like Spalding Gray or Laurie Anderson or Sarah Silverman (well, she’s a comedian, but you get the idea and I needed a more contemporary reference since the young un’s have no idea who Gray or Anderson are).


SHORY: What advice would you give aspiring writers? Run screaming to the nearest MBA program?

BEACH: It’s the same old advice: read and write. I’m dumbfounded by my writing students who don’t read and who actually don’t spend much time writing. They think their ideas should carry them. Ummmm…nope. Doesn’t work that way. As you know, writing takes practice, struggle, discipline, and passion — the good idea is helpful, but doesn’t mean squat if it can’t be executed. I use the playing guitar metaphor a lot in class: You own a guitar, but you never practice. Nor do you listen to a variety of music. But you harbor rock star dreams. Okay. It’s fine to dream, but what are you thinking? Do you think one day you’re just going to pick up the guitar and miraculously play like Jimi Hendrix?

My other advice is to NOT pursue writing as a profession. Find a more lucrative profession. Be a lawyer. Or an accountant. Or a nurse. At least those occupations will give you something to write about.

SHORY: You recently moved from Austin, which I’m told has a thriving literary and music and every other type of scene, to St. Louis, which, well, I don’t know. Are there scenes in St. Louis?

BEACH: A scene…hmmm…Okay, so Austin has this slogan: Keep Austin Weird. But the true freaks, I mean the freaky freakazoid freaks, are in St. Louis. It’s a dark city. The other night I was at this bar flirting with this dude who looked like your standard ex-frat, jock, country music listening type dude, and he grabbed my wrists and studied my fingers real bizarre like, and I said, “What the hell?” and he answered, “I’m a freelance phlebotomist.” I looked at his hands and noticed long fingernails filed into points and manicured with clear polish. After talking to him for a few more minutes I realized: He thinks he is a fucking VAMPIRE (well, there are no such things, but you know what I mean). Yeah. Folks are pretty darn strange here in the Lou. What kind of nickname is that anyway? The Lou?

SHORY: Do you like the provel cheese? I’m very fond of it.

BEACH: My favorite cheese is feta.

Elva Maxine Beach’s NEUROTICA is available at Amazon.com.

Why I quit rating books

I rated something like 250 books in Goodreads.

The other day I took all the ratings down.

Why?

First of all, a five-star scale is the absolute worst fucking way to rate a book–except for maybe a three-star scale. Even “liked it/didn’t like” it is better, since you’re not left with trying to figure out what two, three, or four stars mean.

Second, I’ve seen too many writers on Twitter go crazy over ratings their books have received, either on Goodreads or Amazon. Much of the anxiety is over one-star reviews, but most folks seem unhappy if they receive anything less than five.

For the life of me, I can’t see why you would ever want to draw attention to poor reviews you’ve received, but a lot of writers just can’t resist. Maybe I have some perspective because I taught college for ten years. I was constantly evaluated, and I learned to look at the overall average rather than the invariable poor evaluation you’d get each class from a malcontent or two. When your overall evaluations are high, when most everyone thinks you’re doing a good job, then it makes no sense to agonize over a couple of outliers.

On Goodreads, my personal interpretation of the star system went like this: 5, the very best; 4, very good; 3, good; 2, fair; 1, poor. War and Peace gets five stars from me. Absalom, Absalom! Catch-22. All the King’s Men. And I’m absolutely certain that someone reading this will quibble with one or another of those books deserving five stars. You know what? Shut up.

Chances are, your book isn’t as good as War and Peace, even if it’s quite good. Four stars from me would mean that I thought your book was maybe not quite the very best fiction humankind has yet produced, but still pretty damn good. But if I gave it four stars, maybe you wouldn’t get all bent out of shape, maybe you’d understand intellectually, but somewhere down in your gut it would bug you, because that’s the system we have, it would bring your average down, etc., etc.

I get it.

So I’m not rating books anymore.

That doesn’t mean I won’t review your book, on Goodreads or elsewhere. But I’m going to use these things called “words.” That way I can say all the positive things I want, and if necessary the negative things too, without the burden of having to make all those thoughts fit into a five-star scale.

But seriously, people, don’t sweat your one-star reviews. For god’s sake, don’t tweet about them.

War and Peace has a few one-star reviews on Amazon.

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